New lawmakers vow to renounce partisanship

Party leaders are likely to find congressional freshmen more independent than usual.

Evan Vucci/AP
On Monday, Representative-elect Bobby Bright (R) of Alabama (c.) waited with fellow newly-elected House members on Capitol Hill to have their freshman class photo taken.
Jim Young/Reuters
Say cheese! Newly elected members of the US House of Representatives pose for their freshmen class photo on the steps of the Capitol Building Monday.

The freshman Class of 2008 converged on Capitol Hill for orientation this week not just to learn the ways of Washington but also to try to change them.

Their ranks include lawyers, governors, mayors, and former congressional staff, as well as physicians, real estate developers, investment bankers, Internet entrepreneurs, teachers, community organizers, a cosmetics saleswoman, and a former prison guard.

What many have in common is a pledge to voters to renounce bitter partisanship and break the gridlock on Capitol Hill – pledges that, if honored, pose management issues for leadership on both sides of the aisle.

For example, incoming Rep. Bobby Bright (D) of Alabama, the outgoing mayor of Montgomery, opposes abortion rights and gun control and supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If elected, he said he would “put party politics in the back seat.” He is backed by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition.
On the Republican side, Jason Chaffetz of Utah – one of only four Republicans to defeat a House Democrat in this campaign cycle – wants to wean his party off big-government conservatism, including rolling back President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law.

With congressional approval ratings stuck in single digits, it’s no surprise that newcomers on both sides of the aisle campaigned against Congress and its ways.

But the larger political calculus is driven by the fact that most congressional seats are no longer competitive, thanks to decades of high-tech, partisan redistricting and gerrymandering.

Moreover, the battles for the remaining competitive seats are fought out – often fiercely and at great expense – in the center.
For the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal era, Democrats gained seats in back-to-back elections: that’s 57 pickups in two election cycles.

With a handful of recounts pending, the head count for new members stands at 30 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the House, and six Democrats and two Republicans in the Senate. Three Senate seats and five House seats are not yet determined.

For Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the influx of more conservative Democrats has meant finding ways to accommodate views more conservative than the caucus. In the 110th Congress, she called these moderate or conservative Democrats her “majority makers.”

She also adopted the Blue Dog calls for rules in the House requiring that offsets be found for tax cuts or new spending.

“We made it a point early on to recruit candidates who best reflected their district’s values and priorities and who could win a general election,” says Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the House Democrats.

“The path to victory in each district is different, and we recognized and respected that. That flexibility allowed us to expand the number of seats in play to a historic level and ultimately win at least 24 seats this cycle,” he added.

In Colorado, Betsy Markey, an ice cream and coffee shop owner and former aide to Sen. Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado, defeated incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) on a campaign pledge to rein in government spending and curb pork.

In Idaho, Democrat Walt Minnick, a businessman and former Republican who once served in the Nixon White House, toppled one-term Rep. Bill Sali on a campaign to grow the economy by cutting taxes and reining in spending. He strongly opposed this year’s $700 billion bailout, a move he dubbed “fiscal recklessness.”

“Congress was asked and advised to take responsible and immediate action to save Main Street and prevent a global depression.

They were asked and advised to pass a bill with strong regulatory reforms and loans to shore up our struggling financial system. However, in yet another sign that the system in Washington is broken, the House approved a bill that is simply not the answer,” he said on his campaign website.

“This bill is a giveaway to Wall Street. It does not do enough to protect the American taxpayer, and it adds far too much debt to our record deficit,” he added.

In the 110th Congress, when Democrats had governed with a margin of only 26 votes, the 47-member Blue Dog caucus could have derailed leadership priorities and sometimes did.

But with the pickup of at least 24 House seats in the 111th Congress, Democrats have more scope to release members of their caucus from tough votes.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who this month signed on as President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff, took the lead in recruiting Democrats to win back a majority in the House in 2006.

“He did not tell these people to vote with the party all the time. He told them to vote against the party a lot of the time, if needed to hold the seat and keep their majority,” says David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.

Democrats are retaining his playbook. You can bet he will still be in the White House to instruct them to do the same,” he adds.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are facing a smaller influx of members of Congress who are typically more conservative than their GOP colleagues.

Incoming Rep. Tom Rooney (R) of Florida defeated Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) on a campaign to cut spending and “fight for limited government.”

Newcomers like Mr. Rooney are expected to add weight to the conservative wing of the GOP caucus.

On Friday, conservative Rep. Dan Lungren announced that he will challenge Rep. John Boehner of Ohio for the post of House Republican leader.

“I am embarking on this effort because I think our party is in trouble [It runs] the risk of becoming a permanent congressional minority,” he said. Leadership elections are expected on Wednesday.

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